As the UN General Assembly begins its new session, a colossal
gulf is again visible - a gulf between what international human
rights law and UN resolutions say, and what some member nations do.
A concrete effort must be made by the international community to
close this gulf.
One glaring example is how some countries treat people who dare
to express dissenting views about religion. A number of nations
uphold and enforce laws that punish their own citizens for religious
dissent or what they view as deviance from sacred norms. Under such
laws and practices, dissidents may find their views labeled as
blasphemous, defamatory, or insulting to religious symbols, figures,
or feelings. If they are tried and convicted, some face draconian
punishments, including execution.
The 2013 Annual Report of the US Commission on International
Religious Freedom highlights the most outrageous example: In
Pakistan at least 17 individuals remain on death row on blasphemy
convictions, while 20 more are serving life sentences. At the same
time, violent religious extremists have taken the law into their own
hands, murdering individual Pakistanis accused of blasphemy.
In Pakistan's most heavily publicized case, Asia Bibi, a
Christian farm worker and mother of five, was sentenced to death in
November 2012, allegedly for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. She
remains in jail and on death row.
An Egyptian law bans "contempt" or "defamation" of religions.
Since President Hosni Mubarak's departure, there has been a spike in
such cases affecting Muslims and disproportionately Coptic
Christians. For example, Ayman Yousef Mansour, a Christian, and
Alber Saber, an atheist activist, both received three-year prison
sentences in 2011 and 2012, respectively, for insulting Islam, God,
or the Prophet Muhammad. Mr. Saber fled the country; Mr. Mansour is
still in prison. Earlier this year, Bassem Youssef, a comedian and
satirist, was charged with "insulting Islam" on his popular
Saudi Arabia uses blasphemy charges to suppress discussion and
debate and silence dissidents against the government's own
interpretation of Sunni Islam. In July, Saudi Arabia sentenced Raif
Badawi, the editor of the Free Saudi Liberals website, to 600 lashes
and seven years of incarceration for blasphemy and other charges.
And since February 2012, authorities have detained Hamza Kashgari, a
blogger who faces possible blasphemy charges. When commissioners
from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom visited
the kingdom this year, officials dubiously claimed that they are
holding him for his own safety and to "educate" him to express his
opinions in a more measured way. …